Consider this your greatest-hits list of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen.
Swinging yet serene, Playa del Carmen is the not-so-secret antidote to Cancun. The Mayan Riviera is the coast with the most and Playa del Carmen is its most eclectic destination. Combining rich Mayan culture, culinary diversity, year-round warmth, otherworldly subterranean swimming pools, and a gorgeous beach or two, this city might just blow you out of the water.
Previously known as Xaman-Ha or “waters of the north” in Maya, Playa del Carmen was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Cancun’s patron saint. Situated on the Mexican Caribbean coast, this once sleepy fishing village is now a cosmopolitan city in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo where many come to meet the world. To be able to say you’ve visited this Mayan Riviera gem, tick the following scintillating experiences off your list.
Here is a definitive list of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen, a tropical playground that might just blow you out of the water.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PLAYA DEL CARMEN?The weather and waters stay warm enough to welcome you 365 days a year, but the best months to visit Playa del Carmen are November through March when the heat and humidity are less punishing.
Monitor the Quintana Roo government portal to get the latest COVID-19 information, guidelines, and requirements.
Top Picks for You
Begin at Quinta Avenida
Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) is the beating heart of Playa del Carmen, which is affectionately called “Playa” by locals. Stroll along this pedestrian-only street to take in a conglomeration of tour operators, bustling bars, restaurants, clothing shops, live comic book characters, street performers, and well-stocked tequila stores professing to be museums.
Playa del Carmen is the largest (and fastest-growing) city in the Mayan Riviera but it’s still small enough to delightfully discover on foot. Quinta Avenida (or “La Quinta”) is Playa’s principal street paralleling the beach and a quasi baptism of fire that will get you pumped to start your trip.
Frolic in a Rooftop Pool
Escape to The Fives hotel’s elegant rooftop pool and have an artful mixologist whip you up a cocktail to accompany your sunset while you teeter on the edge of bliss. The Reef 28’s sky-caressing pool is a place to see and be seen and Thompson Playa del Carmen’s rooftop is similarly stylish. From here you can take in purple and blue sunset hues from a cabana or the ivory in-pool loungers. The party crowd loves Deck 5 Pool and Skybar on weekend afternoons while The Palm at Playa boutique hotel is popular for its poolside workshops, yoga classes, and pulsating day-to-evening parties. Over at Be Roof atop the Be Playa hotel, the atmosphere is laid-back and the bar staff always seem to have just the right music playing.
INSIDER TIPOn weekends and days with fabulous weather, it’s best to arrive at a rooftop pool early to ensure you get your preferred sunny spot.
Go Cenote Hopping
Cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes that ancient Mayans believed to be gateways to the underworld. These highly photogenic freshwater pools are a pleasure to swim in sans sand and there are thousands of them in the Yucatán Peninsula (which is comprised of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatán states).
Each cenote has its own splendor. There are free and paid cenotes, open-air, semi-open and underground, public and private, some with cliffs for jumping, and others permit scuba diving excursions. Between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, you’ll find an array of these jungle jewels including Dos Ojos, Tajma Ha, Cristalino, Azul, and the ever-popular Jardin del Eden (Garden of Eden). Don’t forget to bring biodegradable sunscreen.
INSIDER TIPCenote Azul, Cristalino, and Jardin del Eden are located side by side so if one is at capacity, you can easily go and inspect the others.
Hit the Beach Clubs
Playa is a tropical party paradise. Whether you’re after decadent day drinking or a slow session on swings, there’s a beach club with your name on it. At Coralina Daylight Club, the most upscale of the bunch, expect show-stopping spectacles with dancers, boisterous beats, and golden champagne spray guns. For prices that won’t scare the daylight out of you, choose Encanto Beach where a delicious massage is a possibility.
INTI Beach wins the award for the most zen-like atmosphere given its past life as a holistic center while Lido Beach Club has bar swings, a fresh coconut stand, and live music. Mandarino is the one your Instagram account will thank you for, Mamitas Beach Club sits on its namesake beach, and Martina is a pool and beach hybrid and a local icon. Sink into a beachfront day bed or retain a VIP area out back by Martina’s pool where the real partying takes place. Though you might want to stay and play till the stars come out, happiness ends there at 7.30 p.m on weekends. A place where the beat does go on long after sunset is Soundset Beach Club.
INSIDER TIPNote that many beach clubs and rooftop pools require day passes or have a minimum consumption amount.
Fraternize With Rescued Reptiles, Toucans, Macaws, and Monkeys
Over in Akumal, you can hang out with a majestic flamboyance of flamingos and a dazzle of zebras as well as ostriches, wild boars, and titi monkeys. The Akumal Monkey Sanctuary started with the mission to save Mexico’s native howler and spider monkeys, which are protected and cannot be owned as pets. The sanctuary cares for animals received from closed zoos, illegal trafficking, and private collections. Bolster your animal kingdom knowledge with bilingual guides and cozy up to rare species like the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin.
If you feel like going for a dip after your experience, luckily, there’s a cenote right next door (Cenote Ma’ax) and if you dream of swimming with turtles, Akumal is the place to do it. In Mayan, Akumal means “land of turtles.” Head to oceanfront eatery Lol Ha for lunch and then find these sea beauties as you snorkel in the nearby waters.
Say Yes to Isla Holbox
Overwater hammocks. Sand that feels like crumbled butterscotch biscuits. Tangerine-tinted sunsets. Warm blue-green waters with hundreds of maze-like sand bars. Visiting Isla Holbox is a covetable pinch-me-now experience potentially culminating in a sighting of prancing flamingos at the ethereal Yum Balam biosphere reserve or swimming with whale sharks between May and September.
Holbox (pronounced hol-bosh) is a 26-mile-long island 20 minutes off the Yucatan Peninsula. Holbox means “black hole” in Yucatec Maya but bright days are on the horizon as you feast on the island’s famous lobster pizza, admire bioluminescent phytoplankton, pinch yourself repeatedly, and get around on two wheels or two legs. Besides refuse collection trucks, Holbox is car-free and WiFi is spotty at best. This laid-back paradise beats to its own (quiet) drum.
Dine Alfresco at the Monkey’s Cave
La Cueva del Chango (“the monkey’s cave”) deserves its own spot on this list due to the spectacular breakfast menu and for the chilaquiles. This is a traditional Mexican breakfast dish of tender fried tortillas in a red or green salsa. Have yours plain, with chicken, or gingerly garnished with eggs. Vegan options are aplenty, too. Don’t shortchange yourself by not venturing to the back, an outdoor oasis with quiet ponds streaming across, lush trees, and blowing fans for extra scorching days. As the name suggests, cheeky monkeys are often seen cavorting in the trees.
La Cueva del Chango is situated on 38th Street between Fifth Avenue and the beach, a captivating corner with many restaurants, each clamoring for your adoration and reservations with string lights and snazzy décor.
Snorkel and Dive in Cozumel
Cozumel Island is home to the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, making it one of Mexico’s most prized diving destinations. Serious divers in Cozumel swear by Deep Exposure as the go-to shop for technical diving there. Overtly opulent reefs for snorkeling in Cozumel include Palancar Reef, Columbia Reef, and El Cielo, which means “heaven” in Spanish—a slight giveaway of the underwater magnificence that’s promised.
This handsome island is a mere 45 minutes away by ferry from Playa del Carmen and two companies that will chauffeur you across: Winjet (which has orange branding) and Ultramar (the yellow and blue one).
Day Trip to Chichén Itzá, One of the New Seven Wonders of the World
Mexico’s most visited attraction is only two and a half hours from Playa del Carmen driving. Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. El Castillo, the Temple of the Jaguars, and the ball court are some of the monuments at this pre-Hispanic settlement. They grant a deeper understanding of Mayan culture and leave many awestruck.
You can rent a car and journey there independently but it might be worth booking a day tour that includes lunch, roundtrip transportation, fast-track tickets, and an English-speaking guide to talk you through Chichén Itzá’s various secrets. Many day tours also include pit stops in the charming Yucatecan city of Valladolid or at the Saamal, Ik Kil, or Hubiku cenotes.
INSIDER TIPBook your day trip to Chichén Itzá at any tour operator along Quinta Avenida but be sure to get written confirmation of everything that’s included in your package and have valid contact details for the vendor.
Taste Jamaica in the City Center
For Jamaican and Asian American couple Marvin and Stephanie, it was love at first sight. After vacationing in Playa two years ago, they returned home to Canada and sold their belongings to move to Playa and feed people. The result is Rockas Jamaican, where food is sourced locally and made fresh daily—nothing is carried over to the next day. You’ll hear deep cries of sorrow when the jerk chicken sells out—and it does. The ingredient-rich rasta pasta is also a firm favorite at this home-style Jamaican cooking spot.
Spot Mayan Ruins Right on the Beach
Where else can you appreciate Mayan ruins on a limestone cliff overlooking the sea? Only in Tulum. Once known as Zamá, Tulum is a popular tourist destination and a short bus, colectivo (public minivan), shuttle, or taxi ride from Playa del Carmen.
Despite its proximity, Tulum is worlds away from Playa in aesthetics and prices. “Tuluminati” is a colloquial term hatched to describe the robust population of moneyed spirituality seekers and boho-chic influencers that frequent the ritzy beach clubs and dining establishments, camera in hand.
INSIDER TIPFor day trips, renting a car is one of the best ways to get around but getting a vehicle on short notice can be difficult. Where possible, make reservations as far in advance as possible.
Explore Xplor and the Various X-Caret Group Parks
There’s fun for everyone at the adventure and theme parks in Rivera Maya owned by XCaret Group: Xplor, Xplor Fuego, Xel-Ha, Xoximilco, Xenses, Xavage, and X-Caret (pronounced ish-ka-ret). The latter may be viewed as Mexico’s answer to Disneyland. There are more than 40 attractions including a coral reef aquarium, an underground river, an archeological site, a beach, and a butterfly pavilion. The crescendo is the outstanding Mexico Espectacular cultural show which is presented each evening. Fortuitously, those wishing to extend the fun can stay at one of the group’s all-inclusive hotels with oodles of wow factor—Hotel Xcaret, Hotel Xcaret Arte and La Casa de la Playa.
Pose at the Pink Lake
People are surprised to learn that Las Coloradas, the bubblegum pink lake on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula is, in fact, operated by a salt company called ISYSA. You can’t swim in it either. Many still find the journey worthwhile, however, just to lay eyes on a body of water this colorful. An actual swim is also possible at the nearby white-sand beaches.
INSIDER TIPTo immortalize your visit, bring your phone or most basic camera, as fancy SLRs aren’t allowed.
A trip to Las Coloradas can easily be coupled with a stop at Ek Balam, the Acropolis pyramid with dense jungle all around. Unlike Chichén Itzá, you can actually climb the façade to reveal outstanding views from the summit.
Jam to Bob Marley in Puerto Morelos
Make your way to Puerto Morelos where the barefoot chic RoMarley Beach House awaits at The Fives Oceanfront hotel. Bob Marley’s son Rohan Marley is the proprietor of this waterfront venue which has a live reggae band every Sunday afternoon. Park yourself in a sun lounger, mini beach house, or nest bed and promptly order yourself a passion fruit mezcalita (they make a mean one here).
Under-the-radar Puerto Morelos is a fishing village halfway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen, so one may find hours-fresh seafood to accompany those sweet beats. Another sparkling activity in Puerto Morelos is a trip to Jardín Botánico Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marín, Mexico’s largest botanical garden.
Sail the Colorful Caribbean Sea
The Caribbean Sea has long attracted odes from explorers, poets, and water lovers enamored of its deep colors, warmth, and the way of life it invites. See the sun set in a fiery blaze on a small boat, catamaran, or yacht, and discover the true meaning of paradise. Sail to any of the nearby turquoise destinations such as Cozumel, Puerto Aventuras, Puerto Morelos, Cancún, or Isla Mujeres, which has a blockbuster underwater museum (MUSA) with life-sized sculptures decorating the seafloor. Most boat trips will include an open bar and snacks, while blowout options go further with DJs, karaoke, all-you-can-eat sushi, and paddleboards.
Sample Seriously Scrumptious Seafood
In Playa, there are a jillion places to eat wonderful seafood and juicy fish tacos dripping with spicy sauces and more guacamole than you know what to do with. Thompson Playa del Carmen’s rooftop restaurant Cinco affords scintillating views along with tasty treats of the sea like scallop aguachile, marinated octopus tacos, and a heart-stealing Cajun shrimp. You can feast on the catch of the day at El Pirata where local fishermen bring in the goods each morning and you can see and choose your preferred fish. Chiltepín on 34th Street North is perennially packed. The tuna burger here is excellent as is the mixed ceviche (and pretty much everything else). Dive into a generous gourmet tostada at Quinta’s Las Hijas de la Tostada or sample the mountainous seafood tower at Ojitos Mios, which is also on Fifth Avenue.
INSIDER TIPThompson Playa del Carmen has one of the city’s most celebrated (and plentiful) Sunday brunches up on the roof. After your four-course feast, you can head over to the infinity pool to enjoy a live DJ set and you’ll get a 10% discount on any subsequent consumption.
Test Your Knowledge on Tuesdays
Tuesday evenings in Playa unquestionably belong to Laura’s Quiz Night. Visitors, as well as locals, flock to this fun trivia held weekly at 7 p.m. at Buzo’s seafood restaurant. You can go with friends or arrive alone and join a team—this event is the cornerstone of Playa’s English-speaking community where many newcomers build their social networks. There are riveting new questions every single week and you’ll never be short of chuckles. Entry costs 50 pesos and you’ll automatically be entered into a raffle to win exciting prizes. Miss this at your peril.
Dance or Sing the Night Away
This wouldn’t be a Playa del Carmen ultimate guide without a nod to the throbbing nightlife because this city certainly knows how to have a good time. Most nightclubs are concentrated around Quinta and 12th Street including Coco Bongo which was once voted the best club in the world. Packed with endless performances, Coco Bongo is a Vegas-meets-Mexico music, dance, and light show with sprinkles of confetti thrown in for good measure.
Venue hopping is the way to go in Playa and some noteworthy spots to get your party on include La Embajada, palm-fringed rooftop club Clandestino, and Santino, which is a two-story club that caters to lovers of reggaeton and electronic music, a seemingly unfathomable combination. Tequila Barrel has dancers and entertainment but if you’d rather amuse yourself, belt out karaoke hits at Club Social where Playa’s ex-pats tend to flex their vocal cords. You’ll meet more locals at the curiously named Los Olvidados (“the forgotten ones”) and La Cucaracha (“the cockroach”). These low-key Playa karaoke stalwarts exist right next to each other on Sixth Street.
Quaff Craft Beer
When you’ve had your fill of Dos Equis, Modelo, and Corona, move onto some quality craft beer courtesy of Mexico’s many breweries. You won’t find a wider selection than at Club de la Cerveza, which has indoor and outdoor seating and walls nostalgically affixed with international beer brand paraphernalia. Chela de Playa is an independent cervecería with a cool location just off Fifth Avenue with a parched cenote at its doorstep. Cervecería Chapultepec appears to have an outpost on every corner of Playa’s centro and its popularity is tied to its genius “everything’s the same rock bottom price” concept.
Embrace Huichol Culture
Forgo the wooden iguanas, charm bracelets, and kitschy mini sombreros on Quinta and opt instead for meticulously handcrafted Huichol art. Mexico’s Wixárika people, also known as the Huichol, are one of the most ancient Indigenous cultures in the world. The group settled in the states of Jalisco, Durango, and Nayarit along the Sierra Madre Occidental, but you can find their intricately beaded artworks right on Playa’s main street. Tierra Huichol (Huichol Land) on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street is a visual feast of a gallery and store where you can appreciate and explore colorful Huichol art, symbols, and patterns that all have deep spiritual significance. No two pieces are the same and there’s something splendid for every budget.
Fill up on Street Food
Who knows a city better than the locals? The parking lot by the Mega Soriana supermarket on 30th Avenue and 14th Street North has some mighty cheap and cheerful choices of street food. Investigate which truck has the most people sitting on the makeshift chairs and side stoops and then follow their lead.
Some of the food trucks have names while others simply display menus and promising slogans. Of the titled trucks, La Compa makes a sizzling quesabirria taco, and slightly up the road, the Belgian food truck La Frit serves frikandellen and Dutch bitterballen that are just as delicious as you might enjoy at a stalletje (little food stand) in Holland.
Make a Splash at Punta Esmeralda
Punta Esmeralda stands out among Playa del Carmen’s sandy stretches due to one fun fact: it’s a cenote connected to the Caribbean Sea. The cenote waters flow directly into the sea forming a natural shallow pool. The water is warm, access is free, and there are no commercial beach clubs. Far off the beaten path, Punta Esmeralda is on the north of Playa del Carmen just past 110th Street. Locals love this totally open cenote so it’s advisable to visit on a weekday to escape the crowds.
Paddleboard at Sunrise
For good vibes at sunrise, hotfoot it to Fusion Beach Bar where Aloha Paddle Club convenes to enjoy the sea on paddleboards. There are also morning and sunset sessions if waking up at the cock’s crow doesn’t quite appeal to you. Aloha is one of the top-rated water sports companies in Playa and their smiley, superstar instructors also lead private cenote paddleboard tours, surf classes, and supremely fun SUP yoga classes.
Groove to Live Music
Living la Vida Playa means being regularly serenaded by live music. This can be a gift or a curse depending on the volume of the music and your motivation on any given day. To happily drink up live sounds, check out Baton Rouge, Caiman, or Fah, one of Playa’s first live music bars. If you like rock, Onyx Bar is your best bet. Delight in mood-pleasing music, Mexican wine, and a cheese board at Off the Vine, Playa’s premier wine bar (and a popular date night spot). La Vagabunda’s special sauce is Mexican food with a twist and bringing in brilliant musicians. Both of its locations are worth a visit, if only for the tunes alone.
INSIDER TIPTimings and schedules for Playa’s live events are best tracked on Mexpats, a community created and run by local entrepreneur Rodrigo Sagastegui.
Lose Track of Time at Parque Los Fundadores
Coming full circle to where your adventure most likely began, Parque Los Fundadores at the very start of La Quinta is the city’s most recognizable landmark. This seaside park has a towering bronze statue titled Portal Maya which was placed during Playa del Carmen’s celebrations for the end of the Mayan long count calendar. Right by the monument, there are 20-30 minute performances by the Voladores de Papantla, aerial showmen performing a rainfall-invoking ritual hanging upside down from a sizeable pole. Aztec warriors also make an appearance.
Playenses (as Playa del Carmen residents are called) congregate here to let life slow to a crawl, watch the performers, have a nice cold beverage, and give themselves the gift of sunset. You should, too.
Get Sandy at the Beaches
With 20 miles (32 kilometers) of shoreline, Playa del Carmen is promising for beach lovers. Generally, the further you get from the center of town, the quieter the beaches are. Playa Mamitas, one of the busier beaches, holds appeal for those that want it all: people-watching, mariachi bands, jewelers hawking their wares, and even well-seasoned grasshoppers to snack on if that tickles your fancy. Want to play beach volleyball? Head north to Playa 88 in the Colosio neighborhood. Being wider, cleaner, and more tranquil, locals largely assert that Playacar is the best beach in Playa del Carmen. Coco Beach is another sweet spot to enjoy the sound of waves gently hitting the shore.
INSIDER TIP“Playa” is Spanish for “beach” and every single one of them here—even a resort beach—is free and open to the public, so you can park your towel and soak up the sun anywhere you like.
Be Spellbound in Magical Bacalar
Lake Bacalar is more commonly referred to by its nickname—Lagoon of Seven Colors (Laguna de Los Siete Colores). This freshwater lake in the Pueblo Mágico (“Magic Town”) of Bacalar dances between seven spellbinding shades of blue and turquoise, and it’s a popular destination for day-trippers from Playa. An overnight stay is more than worth it, however.
Go Salsa Dancing on Sundays
Blissed-out Sunday afternoons at Zenzi Beach turn into electric nights where salsa-loving merry-makers gather to be swept away by a live band. Even if you’re unskilled on the dance floor, this beach club offers a fun atmosphere, live music performances, and feet-in-the-sand magic under twinkling string-lit palm trees any day of the week.
Explore Secret Rivers
Word got out about Río Secreto (Secret River) long ago and this 100 percent Mexican-owned nature reserve is one of Playa del Carmen’s top attractions. Adventure lovers revel in swimming, snorkeling, diving, and cycling through this extensive network—around eight miles—of colorful river caves and mighty rock formations that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi blockbuster. Expert guides lead you through this underground marvel and it’s a perfect activity for rainy days that render the beaches off-limits.
Dine in a Luxurious Cave
Dress to impress and make your way to Benito Juarez Avenue, where a dinner cave awaits to whet your appetite.Alux is a sleek fine dining experience in a cave dating back thousands of years. The restaurant is entirely underground but you can discard all thoughts of a damp, dingy bat-infested cavern—Alux was practically designed for photo ops. Elaborate chandeliers, neon catchphrases, and well-lit stalactites make up the décor, and owing to the uniqueness of the venue, Alux is a top pick for special occasions.